Definitions of Progressive and Traditionalist

April 13, 2017

For the last 100 years or so, the two main branches of educational thought have been Traditionalism and Progressivism. Yet, in my view due to the way teacher training has been interested in passing on only the progressive perspective, many teachers are apparently oblivious to this.

Twitter poll, source unknown

I’m sure a lot of the confusion comes down to a belief that the terms refer only to teaching styles and not to philosophies, or through attempts to define them using checklists of ideas, rather than as families of ideologies.

Here was my attempt to define the terms.

We can still identify progressive values. Also, traditionalism is more consistent and we can recognise departures from it. Somebody is heir to the progressives if they endorse any of the key disagreements between traditionalists and progressives, rather than all of them. There are three main areas of dispute.

Content. Traditionalists believe that there is a body of knowledge and belief – a tradition – to be passed on and that the benefits of this to one’s intellect provide the rationale for education systems. Progressives can deny this in a number of different ways (or not at all) but to argue in any of those ways marks one out as a progressive.

Some of the most common are:

  • Denying a shared tradition on grounds of individualism (eg. “all children are different and need or want to know different things”);
  • Presenting the teaching of a tradition as oppressive or tedious;
  • Denying a shared tradition on the basis of an exclusive identity (“my students are EAL/working class/muslim/revolutionaries and, therefore, do not, or should not, value that knowledge);
  • Identifying alternative non-academic aims for educational institutions, eg. happiness, employability, political consciousness, socialisation, or anything that is actually more to do with parenting than teaching;
  • Identifying academic aims for education that are too generic to require specific knowledge, eg.: critical thinking, creativity, independence or resilience;
  • Claiming that children or parents do not want this sort of education and, therefore, it should not be taught;
  • Denying the importance of recall or memorisation in learning;
  • Claiming that social, economic or technological change will render the traditional knowledge obsolete;
  • Valuing only knowledge that has been sought out by students on their own initiative;
  • Denying that anyone has the authority to identify the tradition to be taught (“Who are you to decide what my students need to know?”).

Authority: The last point brings us to another major branch of the debate, that of teacher authority. Traditionalists believe that teachers should be in a position of authority over students. This means both that their professional decisions are legitimate ones that are binding on students, and that they should have the means to enforce those decisions. Many (but not all) progressives have disputed one or both aspects of this. The key themes are:

  • Autonomy. The progressive tradition has emphasised the importance of the decisions of the child. Activities that children have chosen for themselves are valued over those chosen by the teachers. Often progressives have seek to make schools less structured, advocating open plan classrooms or non-traditional lessons. The rhetoric of “factory schools” is entirely progressive, as is talk of “independent learning”.
  • Motivation. Those activities that children want to do, such as playing or talking to friends, are given additional value. Those activities that more clearly serve the purpose of the teacher, are considered less worthwhile. Obviously, there are compromise positions here, but an emphasis on fun and engagement at the expense of academic rigour is a key progressive theme.
  • Discipline. This is probably the key dividing line between progressives and traditionalists today. Traditionalists have no problem with the idea that children should obey or conform, as long as it serves the educational purpose. Teachers have the right to be in control and to make moral judgements about the good of their students. Progressives often fear that teacher control is too coercive or even cruel. Progressives are far more likely to object to punishments, and sometimes even rewards, and see them only as a mechanism for control and to deny the relevance of desert. They are far more likely to endorse the idea that rules should be flexible and that children should be negotiated with, appeased or persuaded rather than expected to comply. They are more likely to argue that rules should be about vague values (eg.: “respect each other”) than required behaviours with a practical benefit (eg.: “walk on the left side in the corridor”).
  • Student opinion. Progressives often favour both formal attempts to collect and respond to student opinion, and informal attempts to encourage students to give opinions. Teachers are expected to justify their decisions to students, and often to persuade them rather than exercise their authority. Students are encouraged to question their teachers and challenge their decisions and defiance can be seen as normal or acceptable on this basis. It may be decided that getting the student’s side of the story is crucial even in disciplinary matters. At times, progressives can seem very hostile to teachers getting their way when students obstruct them. Teacher’s moral judgements are seen as suspect and identifying difficult students or challenging behaviour can be seen as “labelling”. Some progressives are uncomfortable with the idea of children being required to be quiet.
  • Status. Progressives will often want to remove outward signs of the difference in status between students and teachers. So they are less likely to favour school uniforms, and more likely to favour calling teachers by their first name.

Methods. Teaching methods differ between progressives and traditionalists. Teaching methods are often seen by those who want to deny the debate as all there is to the argument.  The straw man version of this is simply to state “traditionalists do X, progressives do Y” and then to argue that if you do both X and Y then the debate is irrelevant to you. However, it is what you value that is more important than what you do. And even when people deny the relevance of any of the debates I described in the previous two sections, their preferred methods may reveal otherwise. Roughly speaking, traditionalism values explicit instruction, memorisation and practice. Progressivism favours group work, discussion between students, discovery learning and learning which is relevant to (or mimics) “real life”. Values do matter more than precise methods and teaching methods are only really the decider in the case of the teacher who claims to be uninfluenced by ideology but shows a marked preference for one type of teaching. Many progressives will simply claim that the progressive methods they use work and refuse to acknowledge the philosophy that informed that judgement.

Recently @Trivium21c drew my attention to Dewey’s description of how the terms were used from 1938.

Mankind likes to think in terms of extreme opposites. It is given to formulating its beliefs in terms of Either-Ors, between which it recognizes no intermediate possibilities. When forced to recognize that the extremes cannot be acted upon, it is still inclined to hold that they are all right in theory but that when it comes to practical matters circumstances compel us to compromise. Educational philosophy is no exception. The history of educational theory is marked by position between the idea that education is development from within and that it is formation from without; that it is based upon natural endowments and that education is a process of overcoming natural inclination and substituting in its place habits acquired under external pressure.

At present, the opposition, so far as practical affairs of the school are concerned, tends to take the form of contrast between traditional and progressive education. If the underlying ideas of the former are formulated broadly, without the qualifications required for accurate statement, they are found to be about as follows: The subject matter of education consists of bodies of information and of skills that have been worked out in the past; therefore, the chief business of the school is to transmit them to the new generation. In the past, there have also been developed standards and rules of conduct; moral training consists in forming habits of action in conformity with these rules and standards. Finally, the general pattern of school organization (by which I mean the relations of pupils to one another and to the teachers) constitutes the school a kind of institution sharply marked off from other social institutions. Call up in imagination the ordinary schoolroom, its time-schedules, schemes of classification, of examination and promotion, of rules of order, and I think you will grasp what is meant by “pattern of organization.” if then you contrast this scene with what goes on in the family, for example, you will appreciate what is meant by the school being a kind of institution sharply marked from any other form of social organization.

The three characteristics just mentioned fix the aims and methods of instruction and discipline. The main purpose or objective is to prepare the young for future responsibilities and for success in life, by means of acquisition of the organized bodies of information and prepared forms of skill which comprehend the material of instruction. Since the subject-matter as well as standards of proper conduct are handed down from the past, the attitude of pupils must, upon the whole, be one of docility, receptivity, and obedience. Books, especially textbooks, are the chief representatives of the lore and wisdom of the past, while teachers are the organs through which pupils are brought into effective connection with the material Teachers are the agents through which knowledge and skills are communicated and rules of conduct enforced.

I have not made this brief summary for the purpose of criticizing the underlying philosophy. The rise of what is called new education and progressive schools is of itself a product of discontent with traditional education. In effect it is a criticism of the latter. When the implied criticism is made explicit it reads somewhat as follows:

The traditional scheme is, in essence, one of imposition from above and from outside. It imposes adult standards, subject-matter, and methods upon those who are only growing slowly toward maturity. The gap is so great that the required subject-matter, the methods of learning and of behaving are foreign to the existing capacities of the young. They are beyond the reach of the experience the young learners already possess. Consequently, they must be imposed; even though good teachers will use devices of art to cover up the imposition so as to relieve it of obviously brutal features.

But the gulf between the mature or adult products and the experience and abilities of the young is so wide that the very situation forbids much active participation by pupils in the development of what is taught. Theirs is to do—and learn, as it was the part of the six hundred to do and die. Learning here means acquisition of what already is incorporated in books and in the heads of the elders. Moreover, that which is taught is thought of as essentially static. It is taught as a finished product, with little regard either to the ways in which it was originally built up or to changes that will surely occur in the future. It is to a large extent the cultural product of societies that assumed the future would be much like the past, and yet it is used as educational food in a society where change is the rule, not the exception.

If one attempts to formulate the philosophy of education implicit in the practices of the new education, we may, I think, discover certain common principles amid the variety of progressive schools now existing. To imposition from above is opposed expression and cultivation of individuality; to external discipline is opposed free activity; to learning from texts and teachers, learning through experience; to acquisition of isolated skills and techniques by drill, is opposed acquisition of them as means of attaining ends which make direct vital appeal; to preparation for a more or less remote future is opposed making the most of the opportunities of present life; to static aims and materials is opposed acquaintance with a changing world.

 I was a bit surprised just how close these two descriptions are, particularly given how many of Dewey’s heirs now clam not to recognise these terms. The fact that both descriptions include obedience alongside the passing on of a body of knowledge, and both seem to allow for the ideas in progressivism to be more loosely connected strikes me. However, my description is not necessarily independent of Dewey’s, I had read his back in the days when educational progressives claimed traditionalism was wrong rather than undefined. This leaves me with some questions:

  1. Have I missed any important differences between the two descriptions? I know there are differences, they just didn’t seem important.
  2. What was the context of Dewey’s remarks, affirming his place in the debate or denying it?
  3. How can those who deny the debate ignore or explain away this history?

    The last question should be seen in the context of remarks like this:



    1. […] willing to ante up.  If you do care about what these terms mean – and you should –  this is a useful reference […]

    2. I wonder:
      a) whether the dividing-lines between the two branches are that clear-cut – especially in practice, where every teacher migles through without caring too much for theory
      b) why the ideological foundations of ‘traditionalism’ are not lain bare, the same way ‘progressivism’ is debunked

      • The Progressives have been laying into the ideological foundations of Traditionalism for a century now. You don’t have to look very hard to find people railing against the damage traditional methods do to students.
        The issue is that although many are determined that the ideological foundations of Traditional teaching are barren, that the actual results of using traditional methods are stubbornly resilient.
        The Anglo world’s progression to progressive methods is matched by our descent in the PISA rankings. The schools with the best results have a striking tendency to be old-fashioned in their methods. Study after study shows explicit teaching methods are better than discovery ones.
        So you can lay into the apparent underlying flaws in “traditionalism” all you like — I’ll go with with the evidence of the results.
        where every teacher mingles through without caring too much for theory
        Not caring about theory, and mingling them are not the same. I think you are confusing adopting some of the other side’s better techniques with adopting their philosophy.
        Most teachers I work with care not a jot for the theory, but are clearly motivated by one line of reasoning or the other. You can’t be both for teacher authority and also be for student-directed learning. You can’t value teaching a single method for clarity and also value teaching multiple methods for understanding. You either reliably drill for recall or you don’t.
        There is one exception to that — wannabe progressives that can’t quite buy in fully. So they teach “engaging” discovery lessons for half a topic then have to resort to traditional methods to catch up so they finish in time.
        There are no wannabe traditionalists, although there are some teachers who have found that what they were taught in Teachers College was rot, and are drifting across to the evil side.

    3. […] https://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/2017/04/13/definitions-of-progressive-and-traditionalist/ – Definitions of Progressive and Traditionalist – ‘For the last 100 years or so, the two main branches of educational thought have been Traditionalism and Progressivism’ […]

    4. I agree with so much of what is termed to be ‘Traditionalist’. However, (and I apologise if I’m repeating things I’ve said elsewhere before) three observations:
      1) The poll you posited is not truly representative. What about answers such as “Yes, but I don’t care”, or “Yes, but I don’t think they are as relevant as you yourself might think, because they massively conflate multiple distinct dimensions of education.”
      2) Secondly, what if in the penultimate paragraph of the Dewey extract we replaced ‘opposed’ as it occurs each time with ‘juxtaposed’… ? Have you considered philosophical formulations which see the paradoxical truthfulness of each position?
      3) Finally… (and this is where I find myself repeating myself)… What if the purest Progressives suggested that anyone who disputed any of their creeds was – by default – a Traditionalist…? Would you welcome that person into the fold? I really think that your position that anyone who isn’t totally with ‘us’ is ‘the OPPOSITE’ is a crippling intellectual flaw.

    5. Since the discussion on twitter seems to go one about ‘it’s a false dichotomy!’ versus ‘well then first your prove to me there’s a middle ground then’, I will provide some evidence that teacher beliefs don’t work this way – even if ‘the educational debate’ in some circles has been constructed around this dichotomy.
      Pratt (and other researchers) identified at least 5 different teaching perspectives. See https://cvm.msu.edu/assets/documents/Faculty-and-Staff/Development_and_Use_of_the_Teaching_Pers.pdf and http://blogs.ubc.ca/srikanth/files/2011/12/TPI-Teaching-Perspectives-Summaries.pdf
      See also an application of this idea: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=
      Also, Pratt showed that teachers can adhere to multiple perspectives, and that these are also context-dependent.
      So it is very well possible to argue that the prog/trad dichotomy does not cover the actual content of the belief systems of teachers, nor the structure of their belief systems (since not either/or).

      • I’ve taken a brief look at that. It certainly seems to break down the beliefs of progressive educators far more. Perhaps it is a better description of beliefs. However, is it a better description of the debate?

    6. […] in education are “more often than not just trying to shut down debate.”  Old Andrew has also alleged that those who think the divide is a false dichotomy are in denial about the existence of the […]

    7. […] Teaching in British schools « Definitions of Progressive and Traditionalist […]

    8. […] rather neatly sums up a major issue in the ‘trad’ vs ‘prog’ debate that has been raging on edutwitter of late. The text, a quote attributable to Friedrich Engels, reads “What these gentlemen all […]

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